Dahlia was running around the house screaming and crying. “I hate her! I hate her! I will never play with her again!” Finally, her steps slowed, and she told her father what had happened. He listened attentively. When she stopped, he asked, “Is there anything else?” Dahlia added more details and resumed crying bitterly. Father listened. When Dahlia stopped talking, he acknowledged, “I understand and I love you very much.” Dahlia accepted her father’s embrace and support as she sobbed some more in his arms. Then as suddenly as the storm of tears began, she was finished. She got up and cheerfully announced, “Daddy, did you know that tomorrow Tina and I are going together to the beach? We are building a log house there with Adam and Tom. I will tell Tina before we go that I won’t ruin her work again, and I am sure she will be nice to me.

Why was this encounter so successful? How did Dahlia get over her upset so completely and become aware of her responsibility in the matter on her own?

There were three main ingredients in her father’s reaction that worked: 1) Attention 2) Respect 3) Trust. He gave his daughter full attention and took her seriously as she poured out her feelings. He respected and trust her by not intervening with words of wisdom, advice or help. He expressed unconditional love and she was left feeling powerful and in ownership of herself. In other words, he followed her lead and supported her as she resolved her own upset until her cup of anguish was “empty” and she was ready to take responsibility and move on.

Some parents may be surprised that not only did Dahlia recover her spirit, but also admitted her own cause in the matter and made a commitment to “clean up her act.” It would have been so tempting for her father to inquire, “What did you do to cause this?” or to make a suggestion such as, “Maybe you can get together and talk about it.” But his trust and support gave Dahlia the power to generate her own insight.

We are often tempted to share our wisdom and give advice to children instead of listening to them. However, when we do give advice or feedback like: “Maybe you hurt her too?” or: “You should have called me,” or any other comment representing our own perception of the situation, the result is almost always an escalation of the upset into a bigger tantrum. Why? Because now, in addition to whatever other hurt the child is dealing with, she is furious at us for not listening and for judging and undermining who she is. It is never useful to give advice to the wise. And children are very wise – indeed masterful – at healing themselves from emotional upsets and distress when given supportive nonjudgmental attention.

The Power of Silence

Although our society is generally known to be uncomfortable with silence, saying nothing is often the best thing we can do for the child’s emotional well-being. Silent attentive listening is a vote of confidence, trust, respect, and love. Listening gives the child a clear message that we care, that we accept her – however she feels – and that her safe way of unloading the pain is trusted and respected. Even knowing this, I sometimes find myself advising my children in spite of my better intentions. When I catch myself, I apologize and resume listening.

If words of validation bring on a wave of fury in your child, remember silence. The child needs to be listened to, and giving the gift of silence is often the best way to love. True validation without reading into the child’s feelings and with no hidden judgment or advice helps the child to express her feelings through crying, which leads to emotional recovery. Even though a dramatic expression of emotions may feel uncomfortable to us, to the child it is a healthy way to release her feelings.

I have more than once listened to vows of hate and anguish between siblings who screamed, “I will never play with him!” I said nothing but “Oh” at the very end and was always rewarded with the sound of laughter ringing from the playroom within minutes. When hateful feelings are freely expressed in the ears of a loving listener, the child can move through the emotion and experience love and happiness again.

What if a Child is “Destructive?”

Parents often pose this question about their child’s chosen form of expression. “Yes,” they say, “but what if the child is being destructive or hurting someone in his anger and anguish?”

What is destructiveness? If the action is safe for everyone – let the child do it! In fact, a parent can increase the value of a safe aggressive act by supporting the child in feeling powerful. Most children’s agonies come from feeling helpless, controlled, and powerless.

One day when one of my sons was four, he emptied his chest of clothes onto the floor with glee. I responded with a dramatic, “Oh No!” which gave him the sense of power he was looking for. I reorganized it only so that he could repeat the “therapy.” I trusted in his need to do so and in the usefulness of the process. After two months of this game and other safe “power games,” the behavior disappeared and with it a lot of jealousy-related stress about his baby brother. (In my book, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, you will find a whole chapter on how miraculous power games are and how to play them.)

The same is true in regard to children’s aggressive games with each other. Often what shows up as a fight with a victim is really a very effective therapy for all involved or just pure fun. When no one is really hurt, staying out of the way is best. Again, trust is the rule. If things aren’t safe, someone will come seeking assistance. When a baby is involved or we are otherwise concerned, we can follow our instincts to glance and check on them to make sure they are safe, but we should stay unseen when possible.

There are many examples of safe aggression as well as activities that can easily be redirected to safe ones. Tearing books can be directed to a pile of old magazines, painting walls to artwork on paper. A simple need to break things can be redirected to making kindling from the wood pile outside or breaking some useless material we intend to throw away. When it is safe it is not really destructive.

Contrary to the concerns of many parents, children distinguish well between the support of an emotional need and blanket permission to destroy. They will not become destructive or disrespectful of valued property. The opposite will result. Letting their need pour out freely and safely will allow them to be peaceful and respectful of possessions we care about, and yet remain clear about the distinction between what can be broken and what should not. Our fears are not only unfounded but also get in the way of supporting the children.

Respond to the Cause

It is when they behave the worst that children need our love the most. A real destructiveness is one that is unsafe or too difficult to repair. In these cases, guidance and special attention should be given to the source of the problem. Aggression signifies great pain and need. A child needs to know that expressing anger through words, tears, screams, or safe aggressive actions is fine, but hurting others or destroying things is absolutely not acceptable and needs to be stopped clearly and quickly. The child who is out of control with rage needs our help in dealing with the source of her pain. Stopping her action does not stop the feelings that prompt it. She needs our compassion, love, understanding, and one-on-one time. But first, the aggressive unsafe act must be stopped immediately, without hurting or insulting the child.

This may be very difficult at times since our own pain drives us to anger despite ourselves. We need to treat ourselves with the same compassion we treat the child. Like her, we cannot allow our anger to hurt ourselves or others, and at the same time, we need an outlet for our self-expression. In my work with parents, I have found that yelling actually does not help us deal with our pain – instead, it re-enforces it.

Looking at your child it is obvious that her pain comes from believing her own thoughts, “They don’t like me, I am not good, Mom doesn’t love me, I need them to play with me, I need this toy…” etc. Our own anger is fueled by the same kind of confusing thoughts, “My child should do as I say, she should dress herself, be quiet, hurry, respect me…” etc. When you find yourself full of rage, take time to breathe deeply and ask yourself if your thoughts are true, valid in the present, useful or helping you to be the parent you want to be. In this way, you relieve the cause of your anger and become peaceful enough to attend to your child. (Use the SALVE formula from Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, chapter one.)

Children lose control just like adults, but more easily; they have less experience in handling emotional storms. When we take time to inquire into our own feelings, they will learn to do the same.

Children look to us for reassurance that when they grow up they will be more able to control their own impulses. Seeing us out of control toward them is therefore very discouraging and disabling – especially on top of the personal hurt, this causes them. If we cannot control our pain-based impulses how can they? We can even teach them how to question their own painful assumptions by modeling how we question our own (S of the SALVE formula.)

When we stop an unsafe, out-of-control act in a gentle manner, we send the child a triple reassurance: 1) “I can count on my parents to help me when I lose control.” 2) “When I grow up I will be able to control myself and act with compassion like my parents do.” 3) “My parent sees my need. I am not bad; it is my action that is unsafe. I am loved and lovable – and, like them, I will learn to express myself freely but safely.”

When one child is hurt, we should tend to him first, without scolding the aggressor. Watching our compassion toward the hurt child, the aggressor is likely to feel remorse even if he does his best to pretend that he doesn’t. Scolding or punishing the aggressor, on the other hand, takes the opportunity for developing care for another away from him. Instead, he may feel rage toward you and toward the other child as well as self-hatred.

It is best to stop an unsafe act gently and clearly. A child needs a reminder that feelings can be expressed but not acted on. After attending to the hurt child, you can tell the aggressor, “I see you are very upset, (angry, scared). I’ll help you vent your feelings safely and resolve your needs”.

Responding with Love to Sibling Aggression

When Lennon was four, he became very annoying and sometimes aggressive toward his one-year-old brother, Oliver. Since this was a new behavior in our home, we didn’t think much about it initially and just brushed him off with orders to stop it. Two weeks later, when alone with Lennon, I expressed my love for him and told him what a wonderful person he was. I was shaken by his response: “You don’t love me. I am terrible.”

“Why?” I asked anxiously, and he answered: “Because I hurt Oliver.” A child who was never punished and had always been a cheerful delight was wilting in front of my eyes with jealousy and developing a low self-image.

That day I started hugging him every time he disturbed Oliver. I know this sounds like a reward – but only to us grown-ups. A child who hurts inside is not experiencing himself as being bad. He is experiencing deep pain, loneliness, lovelessness, and loss of control. I responded to his cry for help and love by giving him what he needed.

I realized that my initial reaction was based on fear and was therefore counter-productive. When I explained that he is hurting his brothers and asked Lennon to stop disturbing him – then and only then were his feelings of being “bad” internalized and reinforced. If I had continued teaching him that he was doing the wrong thing, he may have turned into a bitter bully. Instead, I changed my behavior and responded to his plea for love.

Discovering the source of the problem – jealousy – led me to devote a lot of one-on-one time to Lennon, boosting his self-image. “I am so lucky to share life with you,” “You are so important to me,” and “I love you,” are all words I shared in our times together. When he hurt his brother, I would stop him gently (remove the baby instead of him whenever possible,) give love, and say “I see that you want to hurt your brother. It is normal to feel this way. I love you just the same when you are hurting him. When you grow up you’ll be able to control yourself. For now, I’ll help you.” And I helped him until he recovered his exuberance and love of life, of himself, and of his brother.

There are many such stories from my family and the families I work with. The common thread in all of them is trusting the child. If she “misbehaves,” she is hurting inside and has a valid reason to do what she does. If our compassionate response isn’t helping, it does not mean we should stop trusting and accepting. Rather, it means that we have more to learn; that there is more to the cause than meets the eye and we have not resolved the riddle yet. We need to search or seek the help of someone who can help us. There is never a need to be less than loving.

We may find it difficult to put our own emotional reactions aside – our anger, upset, and unresolved problems from our own childhood. These are real obstacles to helping our children. When the reaction seems unavoidable, I remove myself from the scene (not necessarily physically), take a breath, and “time out” for myself. I try to get in touch with the trigger of my emotions and cry, and I question the validity of my thoughts, expectations, and assumptions. I always find that non are true and that without these thoughts I am the loving mother I want to be.

When validated and listened to, children unload emotional upsets in their own creative ways. It is important to allow crying to take its full course (while giving the child our full attention) and to develop attentiveness to tantrums and rage expressions. Being noisy, giggly, and screechy is also emotionally beneficial. Other than moving ourselves to a different room, or asking the children to keep their play in another room (or outside) – these have no “cure”. Rather, these behaviors are the cure and the child’s way of healing many of life’s upsets. Children are simply magical at directing their own dramatic moments. We can trust them and learn from them.

When we face behavior in our children that is upsetting to us, we have two choices. We can respond from our own fear or we can doubt our own thoughts and find out why the child must do what she is doing. Once we understand, we can respond with kindness rather than with judgment or control.

Although sometimes parents may need a counselor’s assistance with children, developing trust and the ability to listen and connect can go a long way toward harmonious family life and emotionally healthy, self-reliant children.

©Copyright Naomi Aldort 1997, lightly revised 2007

Reprinted and revised with permission from The Nurturing Parent.